Monday 18 November 2019

Dancing at Lughnasa, Gaiety Theatre review: Not quite bleak enough, but still utterly brilliant

'The inspired writing of Brian Friel (pictured) shines through'
'The inspired writing of Brian Friel (pictured) shines through'

Katy Hayes

Five unmarried women live in a Donegal homestead in 1936, two miles outside the town of Ballybeg. The eldest, Kate, is a schoolteacher. The youngest, Christina, has had a child out of wedlock. Maggie is the house joker. Agnes, the sad and serious one, takes special care of Rose, who is 'simple.'

Their brother Jack, has been sent home ill from the African missions, having gone native. The action is narrated by a grown-up Michael, Christina's son, who is seven during the events of the play.

One of the tensions in the text, and challenges of staging it, is the pull between the women's reality and the processing of their lives through the prism of Michael's memory.

Director Annabelle Comyn, in this Lyric production, favours the memory play aspect. Thus, the staging is fluid. Doors and windows are not delineated. Inside and outside melt into one another. The lighting in the Gaiety is problematic, as actors' faces are oddly unlit at times. The entire production has a choreographed feel, not just the dance sequences. The poster image of a free-spirited female dancer points up this unrepressed free-form 'Lughnasa'.

But the whole point of the dancing in this play is that it should represent an escape from the repression of 1930s Ireland. Because the women are moving in graceful slow motion during Michael's speeches, they do not seem repressed at all. The sisters' brilliant dance to the raucous reel on the wireless half-way through Act 1 hasn't its usual show-stopping impact.

Charlie Bonner plays Michael as cheerfully reminiscent. The awful fate of Rose and Agnes is far too conversationally delivered.

His broad smile at the end of the final, perfectly written monologue seems entirely misplaced. Watching 'Dancing at Lughnasa' should feel like watching five women being choked to death. We are a long way from any tragic core with this graceful and pretty show.

However, the acting is generally outstanding. Cara Kelly as the impish Maggie is a particular treat. Despite reservations about the production, the inspired writing of Brian Friel shines through; this brilliant play is bulletproof.

Irish Independent

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